Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Trade Deadline: What to make of it?

I suppose any savvy reader of the Dark Blue Jacket blog can take one look this graphic  (which is offered for comment/satire purposes, Mr. Lawyer) and see where this post is headed.

Over the course of five trades yesterday, Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson took out the trash.

Let's be clear, I'm not saying that the players as individuals are trash.  In fact, I really liked three of the players who were traded.  But Howson has a plan for where the Columbus Blue Jackets are headed, and it was increasingly clear that none of the five players who left the Jackets fit that plan beyond the end of the season.
  • Raffi Torres, a terrific sparkplug of a player, was too good to play on the 3rd or 4th line but was clogging up the roster on the top two lines.  
  • Milan Jurcina, for whatever reason, never caught on in Columbus.  Most telling was Howson's admission in the trade day press conference that he never even once talked about a contract extension with Jurcina's agent.  
  • Freddy Modin, he of the 30-odd games played over two years for the Jackets, and the $3 million+ salary.
  • Alexander Picard, another Doug MacLean gem of a first-round pick, gave it everything he had since getting drafted in 2004 but could never make a permanent home in the CBJ lineup.  You can't say he didn't try.  
  • Matthieu Roy was given more opportunity than any other player from Syracuse that I can think of yet still found himself getting dropped back down to the Crunch as other defensemen got healthy.  
Torres, Jurcina and Modin were all to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the year.  They could walk away from the Blue Jackets with the Jackets getting nothing in return. Picard and Roy didn't fit the long-term plans of the franchise despite their many opportunities to show how they fit, so it was only fair to let them try somewhere else.  

So Howson, figuratively speaking, took out the trash and got what he could for them.  What was that, you ask?
  • Draft picks: Buffalo's 2nd rounder, a conditional 6th rounder from Washington and a conditional 7th rounder from Los Angeles.  The Washington pick depends on how many games Jurcina can play (remember, he apparently has a sports hernia).  The LA pick depends on how many games Freddy can play (no joking, please).  Draft picks are mother's milk to a budget team like the Blue Jackets, and we can only hope that the team sharpens its scouting such that these picks don't go to waste like so many in the past.  Howson's been much better than MacLean on drafting, but he hasn't been perfect.  We need something darned close to perfection in order to win under the current budget constraints.
  • Defenseman Nathan Paetsch, formerly of the Buffalo Sabres system: Having played in only 11 games for the Sabres this year, it looks like Paetsch will be a Cruncher and possible callup as needed.  His amount of playing time down the stretch in Columbus will be very telling about the state of the Jackets' blue line.  Howson said in his presser that Paetsch was a versatile guy, able to play forward or d-man, but he was slotted on defense in Columbus.  
  • Center Chad Kolarik, formerly of the University of Michigan and the Phoenix Coyotes system: With 17 goals and 18 assists over 59 games for the 'Yotes' AHL team, I'm somewhat intrigued by this guy.  That 35 point tally equals third best on the Crunch - the exact same as Picard.  Coincidence?  
  • Center Matt Rust, currently of the University of Michigan: A longer-term prospect, granted, but apparently not a bad one to have in the pipeline.  Hockey's Future - a site I don't know enough to trust - suggests that he has the upside to stretch into a second line center (but also has the potential to backslide into a third or fourth liner).
I'm not going to "grade" the trades individually or collectively, because doing so is a silly exercise in judging the relative merits of prospects, draft picks and 20 game rent-a-players.  Let's instead look big picture and recognize that Howson moved players who weren't in the master plan, and he replaced them with prospects (especially center prospects, something we desperately needed) and draft picks.  Nothing more, nothing less.

The big picture message on this trade deadline day is that Scott Howson is locked in, 100%, to his core of players.  There might be a couple Hitchcock players in the mix (Commodore comes to mind, perhaps Umberger), but Howson is married to them now.  That would be the following (per NHLNumbers):  
  • Contracts expiring no sooner than 2013-2014: Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Rusty Klesla, Derick Brassard.
  • Contracts expiring after the 2012-2013 season: Kris Russell, Mike Commodore (gulp).
  • Contracts expiring after the 2011-2012 season: Kristian Huselius, R.J. Umberger, Samuel Pahlsson, Derick Dorsett, Nikita Filatov, Fedor Tyutin.  
That, my friends is the core of your Columbus Blue Jackets roster.*  Love it or leave it, we're stuck with these guys for at least two more years barring some unforeseen trade.  The rest of the roster is a bunch of short-term, interchangeable parts until they prove themselves to be otherwise.  Torres, Jurcina and Modin were this year's parts, and it was time for them to go.  Roy and Picard proved that they weren't more than part-time players, so it was time to send them along.  

General Electric CEO Jack Welch instituted a rather harsh - but realistic - personnel program at his company.  In many ways, I see Scott Howson taking the same approach.  If memory serves correct. Welch suggested that 10-20% of the staff get churned every year.  Staff who were treading water, staff whose performance was regressing...they needed to understand that the company wanted them to be stars.  If they weren't going to be stars at GE, maybe they ought to try their luck at another company.  Torres wasn't coming back at a price that Howson was willing to accept.  Jurcina wasn't in the plans, as was Picard and Roy.  Modin had one crutch out of Columbus already.  It was time to cut and run...and get what you could.

So now we play out the string (despite what interim coach Claude Noel suggests, I just don't see the playoffs happening this year), collect our high first-round draft slot and proceed to hope that Howson can pull another rabbit or two out of his hat on draft day like he has done in the past.  

*Note that I didn't put Steve Mason or Jake Voracek on that list.  They both are restricted free agents after 2010-2011.  I would think that Howson will try to sign both, but nothing is guaranteed in this crazy world of hockey.  I mean, who would have thought that Steve Mason would tank so hard after his Calder Trophy-winning season last year?


  1. Love the trash analogy. The mark of a competent GM, IMHO, is getting something for nothing. While losing Torres hurts a little for me as a fan (love watching the guy play), it makes sense practically. None of those guys would have been on the roster next season, and he collected three picks (though two are pretty worthless) and three players, two of which could develop into something down the road.

    Not a huge success, but a success nonetheless in getting *something* for nothing.

  2. When Scott Howson first came here, he inherited a huge mess. Bit by bit, piece by piece, he worked at it, fixing this here, tweaking that there, and we all praised his vision. He has a vision. We all drank the koolade. I am not so sure now.

    I understand that you have to get something for the ones who are going to leave at the end of the year. But to take someone who is playing on your second line quite effectively and give him away for someone who wont even be here for two to three years? I'm not so sure about that.

    Or, we take Chimera, who played hard for us every night and trade him to Washington for someone with leadership (Clark) and some blue line help (Jurcina), knowing full well that one of those pieces wasnt going to fit the plan, and you give back to Washington for a 6th rounder (conditionally)?? Sure, Chimera didnt give you a whole lot of offense, and you could count on him for at least one offsides penalty a night, but look what Clark has done, or more like it, what he hasnt done?

    There is a picture there somewhere, a big picture, that he sees. But I feel like I am in the Museum of Modern Art looking at it, and wondering to my self "What the ---- is it?"

  3. WFNYDP - Thanks! It DOES hurt to lose the likes of Torres, but those are the breaks in NHL business.

    Mark - Excellent points. All I can suggest is Torres most likely wasn't going to be here after the end of the season. Howson tried at the price he could pay, and Torres' agent balked.

    As for Chimera, I'm going to lump that trade in with a few other actions that Howson made in trying to give Hitch a little more support. It was clearly a desperation play for veteran locker room leadership, something I have to guess that Hitch was begging management for. Would Howson have made the move if not for Hitch? I'm doubtful.

    Jurcina baffles me. For the life of me, I don't know why Howson saw so little in him that he didn't even try to talk about a new contract. I really liked what I saw, if this blog isn't obvious.

    Your modern art analogy is an interesting one. I look at this team as jello. It just hasn't "set" yet, so we don't see the form that it's going to take. We all have ideas, but everything's still jiggling around. That core group - especially the youngsters, and the young leaders (yes, that's you, Mr. Nash) have to grow up right quick in order for the CBJ to start their run.

    Lastly, consider that Howson sold Nash on the plan, and he sold him lock, stock and barrel to the point that Nash was willing to make concessions to stay in town. Was it because Nash realized he could be filthy rich without the harsh spotlight of more mature hockey towns? Was it because he wanted to be part of Howson's plan? Who knows, but he IS here....right?

  4. Mark - we didn't just give Torres away. We got a 2nd round pick a depth defenseman - doesn't matter how long he is here for. If we couldn't get him to sign in the summer, we would have gotten nothing for him. They made him an offer but apparently it wasn't enough ($2 mil a year I year), which is understandable. He could also always resign with here in the summer (although I hear rumors he wants to sign in Toronto).

    Also the only reason Jurcina got so little return (cond. 6th rounder) is because of him 4-6 week injury (sports hernia). It was believed he would fetch a 3rd round pick, especially after having a good showing at the olympics. Nothing that can happen them. Howson even said "it hurt the team".

    Although nothing big/exciting happened yesterday, I'm pleased.

  5. DBJ - Good point on Chimera not being a Hitch guy. I didn't think of that angle. Then again, that is the same reason we don't have Jody, who seems to find a way to play on a team fighting for the best record in the west.

    Jurcina baffles me as well. Along those lines, Roy does too. Both gave solid minutes, and didn't really hurt the team when they were in there. It was always a mystery to me why they weren't on the ice. I just chalked it up to me not knowing as much as I thought I did, a fact that Mrs2112 reminds me of from time to time.

    Kirsi - I understand the reasoning on what we did. Its always better to get something now instead of nothing later. I just don't think the something is enough for what we gave up.

  6. I don't know how much pull Howson had as the assistant in Edmonton or if he's pursuing a similar strategy. During his time in Edmonton, they made the playoffs 2 out of 4 years, including the one trip to the finals. I think we have to be careful how much we measure the team year-over-year when the important view is a broader one.

    As far as "drinking the kool-aid" I'm not sure how much that matters. Yes it helps sell tickets (which is especially important for a team in this financial state), BUT it doesn't change the quality of the product on the ice. We drank the kool-aid for years with Doug MacLean at the helm and where exactly did that get us?

    I think the comments about the core were good, and I think it's a solid core (with a bad contract for a good, not great player). It seems like Howson is just trying to find the right pieces to add to the core to make the "jello set" as you put it.


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